Bowers & Wilkins PI7 true wireless earbuds review: Mind-blowing sound, fiddly controls

From their design and features to their sound and price, we test the brand’s latest top-end launch

Alex Lee
Wednesday 28 April 2021 16:14
<p>Are these expensive buds worth the huge cost?</p>

Are these expensive buds worth the huge cost?

Premium audio specialist Bowers & Wilkins always likes to take its time when it comes to adopting and developing new gadgetry. Just look at its first Bluetooth speaker (the compact T7, released behind the pack in 2014) or its first pair of wireless cans with active noise cancellation (the Bowers & Wilkins PX, released in 2017).   

In 2020, Bowers and Wilkins released the PI3s: a neckband-style pair of headphones ideal for running. A pair of true wireless earbuds seemed like the next logical step for the audio brand, and something that audiophiles had been anticipating for a long while.

And now they’re finally here. As the old adage goes: you wait ages for a pair of Bowers & Wilkins true wireless earbuds and then two come along at once.

Last week, the brand took its first confident steps into the world of true wireless audio, releasing the premium PI7 earbuds and the cheaper, slightly more dialled-back PI5s. 

So, do the P17s deliver? We’ve tested them outdoors and inside, on other people’s ears, with various devices and with different genres of music. Read on for all our thoughts.

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Bowers & Wilkins PI7 earbuds

Buy now £349.99, Bowerswilkins.com

Design, features and fit

Looks-wise, the P17s are super stylish, and the outer panel has this nice, rounded, metallic design. That panel is touch-sensitive and what you use to control the earbuds. Both sides can play, pause, skip and forward tracks, while the left turns on and off noise cancellation and the right activates the voice assistant. 

There are three silicone eartips in the box, coming in large, medium and small. Putting the buds in our ears required a little adjustment to find the right angle, but once we’d turned them upside down in our ears, they fitted pretty snugly. A friend with smaller ears had issues with them staying in, however, and she definitely needed to swap out to the smaller tips to get them to stay in at all. Smaller-headed people, be warned.  

And because we had to twist the earbuds around our ears so many times to find the right angle in which they stayed in, we ended up inadvertently tapping on the earbud and playing, pausing and switching tracks – this got frustrating, fast. Once we did find the right fit, the touch controls became less of a nightmare because we found ourselves tapping on the sides less.

Read more: 13 best Bluetooth speakers for every budget

The adaptive noise cancellation (ANC) was pretty strong, adjusting the noise cancellation to the environment around us and blocking out most ambient sound. The only sounds that seemed to get through were the higher frequencies: you’ll have no problem blocking out the low chitter chatter on your daily commute when you return to the office. We did notice a small hiss in the background, but it wasn’t obvious when playing music even at a low volume. Three microphones in each earbud power the noise-cancelling technology, which is probably why it was so good. 

Even though there is a transparency mode, you need to go into the Bowers & Wilkins app to turn it on and off. We did like that we could adjust the level of background sound we wanted to let in using a sliding scale in the app, but functionality this would have been nice to have on the earbuds themselves. 

The case is slightly larger than an Apple AirPods case, but not by much. It can be wirelessly charged and has a USB-C port and two buttons – one for easy pairing, the other… well, we’re yet to discover what it’s for. The case feels a little cheap, but it’s extremely lightweight and the hinge in the magnetic top lid is nice and secure.  

Read more: 10 best multi-room speaker systems for wireless sound throughout your home

One of our favourite features of the PI7 earbuds is actually in the case itself. While the plastic case might not look as premium as the earbuds sound, or even as premium as the PI7s look in your palm or ears, there’s one really neat feature.

The charging case doubles up as a handy audio transmitter, letting you use your earbuds even if a device isn’t Bluetooth-enabled. Inside the box, you’ll find a 3.5mm to USB-C cable which you can use to connect any non-Bluetooth device to the PI7 case. This retransmits the audio straight to your earbuds, meaning you can listen to any in-flight entertainment systems with your wireless earbuds and – yes – even game consoles.

We’ve only had a few days with the PI7s, but the battery life is estimated to last about four hours, with the case holding a 16-hour charge. That’s a pretty poor hold taken at face value, but we actually found the earbuds to last a little longer than that, which was a nice surprise when testing them outdoors. It will all depend on the volume level of your music and your use of ANC, however.

Just like the AirPods pro, the PI7s have an IP54 rating – so they can handle sweat and rain, but not a drop in the loo.

Performance and sound

This is where the PI7 earbuds really shine. In contrast to some of the design flaws, the sound on the Bowers & Wilkins PI7s is impeccable: we’re not overexaggerating when we say they’re some of the best-sounding true wireless earbuds we’ve tested so far.

That’s probably thanks to the engineering inside the buds. There is a 9.2mm dynamic drive unit inside each, as well as a high-frequency balanced armature driver. Plus, each bud has its own amplifier, making the audio more accurate and dynamic-sounding. They support 24-bit sound and also Qualcomm’s aptX Adaptive codec, meaning you can technically get higher resolution audio (like the studio-quality audio found on streaming services like Tidal), although the number of phones that support aptX is incredibly small. That said, it’s a great futureproofing feature.

While we haven’t had too much time with the buds, listening to a variety of genres really showed off the PI7s splendid sound. The bass and sub-bass were deep and heavy when listening to trap and bass tracks like Core by RL Grime, but it was all finely controlled.

Read more: Do the Beats Solo Pro noise-cancelling headphones live up to the hype?

If you’re a fan of instrumental or orchestral music, we absolutely recommend giving these a whirl. The cymbals and snares really come through in many of Dan Romer’s soundtracks, and his trademark horns are haunting and vibrant, bringing the mix together elegantly.

The mids feel warm, meaning more upbeat tracks like Grimes’s 4ÆM really pop while still delivering that punchy bass. The crackles and high-frequency sound in the chorus are absolutely delightful, and you really hear every single detail in the track. Background highs like in LCD Soundsystem’s How do you Sleep? always feel complimentary to the overall tune.

It’s a real sculpted, refined sound, but potentially not one for those who prefer a bit more neutrality in their headphones.

Sometimes with in-ear buds, voices come across tinny or like miniature humans are stuck in a vacuum, but we never felt that with these earbuds.

The verdict 

The Bowers & Wilkins PI7s aren’t cheap. In fact, they’re one of the most expensive true wireless earbuds on the market: they cost an eye-watering £349.99.

That said, if you can get past the sometimes clunky controls and the fit which needs a little bit of adjustment, these are a solid pair of earbuds and sound divine. We’re not 100 per cent certain we’d pay that much for them, but you are shelling out for the premium sound experience – something that the Bowers deliver by the truckload.

The PI7s in charcoal are currently out of stock, but the brand says they should be back by the end of next week (7 May). The white versions are available from the Bowers & Wilkins website.

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